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Motoring: Marvel in German engineering or a lot of flame without a fire?

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | November 23rd, 2009

It started in 1989. The BMW Z1, a funky two-seating roadster, with doors that opened by going down into its sills, was launched initially as a European-only import. As far as I know, the Z1 is the only car to have ever had such an unique door arrangement. While it wasn't made in large numbers (and hence is a very rare automobile), its successor, the Z3 has become one of the best-selling roadsters of all time. BMW's Z-Roadster, as a car model, is now on the brink of its 20 year mark.

Endorsed by James Bond of the Golden Eye movie, the Z3 was privy to one of the best car launches ever. With such publicity and a relatively low starting price, it meant that the vehicle was bound to be an instant sales success. In its five-year production run, the Z3 was made available with many engine options, and in the final years of this model's heyday, a Z3 coupe was also added to the line-up.

As popular as the Z3 was however, it did gain the reputation of being a “poseur's car,” rather than a car built for real drivers. BMW decided to challenge this label by introducing its first-generation Z4 in 2002.


Much sharper to drive than the Z3, BMW's Z4 immediately got enthusiasts' attention. Then there was its styling which was unusual to say the least. “Dressed” by the American car-designer Chris Bangle, in his own words, the look of the Z4 was described as, “flame surfacing.” Whatever you want to call it, it certainly looked a bit weird, and consequently, it took time to grow on the public. Unsurprisingly then the Z4 was not as successful as its precursor in the showroom.

Fast-forward to 2009 and BMW has launched a new Z4. The first among the series to have a folding hard-top roof (something that Mercedes-Benz has been offering for a very long time), the styling of the new Z4 is smoother and less controversial, than the previous model. While I like the new look, I did prefer the edginess of the prior version.

The interior, though, has greatly improved. Not only is the quality of its materials better, but it is now much more spacious and inviting. It certainly looks like the sort of place where you could spend long journeys. Having taken one on a long drive however, I would advise against it.

Why, you may ask? First, there was its ride quality, or lack thereof. This car is stiff, and makes you feel every bump, crack, and pebble on the road. Then I had to contend with wind buffeting.

Even with an added wind-blocker, I still experienced more turbulence at highway speeds than I personally would have liked. As a result, I decided to pull into a service station and put the roof back up. Considering all you have to do is push a button, and in less than 30 seconds, the Z4's roof is back in place, this was at least an easy task. Back on the road, I then was made aware of the excessive road noise that this vehicle produces — probably on account of its fat tires. This, as I'm sure you can appreciate, didn't help in relaxing me.

However, as a car enthusiast, I can live with a bit of discomfort if the vehicle is truly magnificent to drive. While the Z4 did well in this department, it didn't perform as strongly as I would have hoped.

With lots of grip, and a chassis that feels capable enough, the Z4 starts out good in theory, but its weight gain over its previous model (due to its folding metal roof) means that it is not as sharp around corners, and as a result, you get a lot of understeer. But, you wouldn't want to provoke this auto into oversteer either because its extra weight means that it can become a pendulum at any time, and regaining control won't come easy. When behind the wheels of this car then, the best thing to do is to drive it with its driver's aids on.

So far, things are not looking all that great for the new Z4. But it does have some saving graces:

First, there is its engine, which is a marvel. Equipped with either a normally aspirated, 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder, that produces 255hp, or a twin-turbo version, capable of achieving 300hp, like the one in my test car, this motor is smooth, and thanks to its duel turbo-chargers, spools up power effortlessly to shoot you down the road. Zero to 100km/h is dealt within 4.8 seconds. With its top speed limited to 250 km/h, this car is fast.

When it comes to efficiency, again, this engine is a winner. I managed 10.7-litres/100km in my test week, which is excellent for a car with such power under its hood.

While I liked this Beemer's engine a lot, I liked its gearbox even more. Available with a standard six-speed manual, or the newer seven-speed dual-clutch, the Z4's transmission is incredible. Swapping gears faster than you can blink your eyes, not only are its shifts smooth, but the noises that this gearbox allows this car to make are truly spectacular. Trust me, you'll find tunnels just so you can blast through them with this car. Also, since this car has no clutch pedal, you can drive it in auto mode.

So, the new Z4 clearly has some plus points, along with some minuses. The next natural question then, of course, becomes one of price. While the base model starts at $53,900, my test car, which wasn't even fully loaded, was pushing close to $74,000. A lot of money for a car that definitely isn't perfect, personally, I'd rather buy a BMW 135i convertible, and with the money I saved, get a Mini Cooper S, as well.
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